Plant a cao, appreciated

I’ve been thinking of the tune “Plant a Cao,” lately (sheet music down below). It was nominated for tune of the month over on It was voted down, but a fascination was still sparked. This is a scottish I first heard on the Musaique CD, by Ad Vielle Que Pourra. They play it at light speed, which suits me some of the time. My current favorite version is this one by Jean Luc Gueneau and Gilles Poutoux:

I heard the Gentiane version, featuring the great Jean Blanchard some years later. It has a gentler, more playful tone:

And here’s a solo accordion version by Jac Lavergne, from his Cadence d’Auvergne cassette tape.

The “lightspeed” version I mentioned above is the second tune in the set below:

And here is sheet music from Sylvain Piron’s set of scottishes on his tradfrance site.

As a bonus for my friend, Barb Truex, here it is on mountain dulcimer:



UPDATE: Gilles Péquignot of Au Gré des Vent has pointed me to their more current web site — Association Carnet de Bal. On that site, four of the group’s albums are available for streaming. They also have about twenty-five tunes available as sheet music.

Continuing my fascination with asymmetric tunes — and my fascination with the Alsatian duo Au Gré des Vents — I present one of their most infectious tunes. “L’intermittent” is the opening track of their album Fraxinelles. It’s a scottisch-marche-valse composed by Danyèle Besserer. Here’s their recording of the tune.

“L’intermittent” excerpt by Au Gre des Vents

And here’s a recording of my band, Le Bon Truc, performing same. As Gilles pointed out to me, we take the tune much more freely in this context. He calls it “Wagnerian,” which is fair. For dancers, of course, regularity is everything (all of the “ones” are an equal distance apart).

And for those who want to try such a thing for themselves, here are the dots for the tune, as transcribed by the inestimable Steve Gruverman.

Gilles Péquignot and Danyèle Besserer, with

Sylvain Piron in the tricorn hat.

BONUS Picture, sent to me by Mary Line, of the Journal d’Alsace. That’s the duo on the right, with Sylvain Piron in the tricorn hat.

Tune: The Bay Tree

Andy Cutting’s “The Bay Tree.”
Click to enlarge.

It occurred to me that however I described Alexandra Browne’s Diatonic Liaisons, nothing would top seeing an actual page. I asked if she would choose a page for me. She did, and sent me a JPEG, and here it is.

The tune — “The Bay Tree” — itself is a brilliant piece of work by the great Andy Cutting, a British accordionist with a true affinity for the continental. The tune is on Cutting’s classic duet recording with vielle à roue player, Nigel Eaton, Panic at the Cafe. That recording can be downloaded here.

An Interview with Alexandra Browne

Going through Diatonic Liaisons it seemed to me there must be quite the story behind its compilation. So I e-mailed a few questions to Alexandra Browne which she graciously answered. If you’re interested in getting a copy of Diatonique Liaisons, e-mail Alexandra at

How did you get involved with the accordion?
I loved the sound of the melodeon and its inherent bounce right from the start but simply couldn’t reproduce that with my big, heavy 72-bass piano accordion, so I borrowed a little Hohner Pokerwork from the great Dave Parry, who was playing for Rogue Morris in Oxford at the time, and I was playing a tune within the hour. It just felt so natural and I was in love. So I bought the box from Dave and sold my bulky accordion, never to turn back.
And how did you encounter French music, and come into contact with this extraordinary group of musicians?
I never clicked with the English style of playing, it so often being very chordal on the right hand and with lots of improvisation, both of which don’t suit me. I have always found that frustrating as I love the style.
I got into Continental music and dance through Blowzabella and the wonderful Andy Cutting. I can’t explain why I took to the music so well. Maybe it’s because there aren’t usually that many chords on the right hand!
I came across other professional musicians at workshops in England and France. Meeting the greats was an amazing experience for me as in the everyday world celebrities are inaccessible. Here they were, right in front of me, the musicians whose skill and style I aspired to, and I could speak to them and ask advice! It was an exciting and instructive time.
And how did you decide to do the book?
How Diatonic Liaisons came to be: In the early 90s I used to help a friend with his playing and used Continental tablature to teach him tunes. My friend suggested I should do a music book but I balked at the idea as I was unsure of my abilities. My friend, without my permission, rang Dragonfly Music and got Matt Seattle interested! By then I really couldn’t say no. I must admit I was intrigued by then. I only had the 2-row Pokerwork so wasn’t really up to the job of transcribing tunes by musicians who often had 2 1/2 or 3-row boxes. Fortunately, Andy Cutting put an order through for me for a Castagnari Mory and, after playing for a few months, found I could understand a bit more about what other players were doing and did my best to reproduce it. Andy was a player I admired to such a degree that I had occasional lessons with him. I picked and picked that poor man’s brains, but he was always very patient and helpful. I dedicated my tune ‘The Cutting Edge’ to this finest of musicians.
When I finally got underway with the book I had only a vague idea how I should approach it. I started with tablature but then decided it was too restrictive so kept to traditional music notation, but I wanted to work on ways to portray sounds and bellows actions which took some time. I started with Andy’s stuff which was a challenge I can tell you! Especially “Spaghetti Panic.”
I hadn’t studied written music since passing grade eight at 18 years old and now I was in my early 30s, so was very rusty.  My twin sister, Pippa Holister, was a music teacher so she helped me a lot in those early days. Eventually I was working more and more on my own.
Once I became more confident, I contacted the French players to ask permission to use their work and also to beg for demo tapes and written notation. I was really nervous as I was still unsure of myself and my French was dodgy too so I had French friends help me with writing the letters. I had no idea how the musicians would react and if the book would ever get off the ground, but they were wonderful and extremely helpful. They always found time for me even with their hectic schedule. 
I remember phoning Marc Perrone at a workshop; I was very nervous. A lady answered and wandered off to get him. I waited and waited and heard in the distance slow, calm footsteps echoing down what sounded like a passageway. It seemed to take forever and I was getting breathless with nerves. The footsteps got louder and louder and I expected a rather harassed voice to answer. But no, it was, “Ah bonjour Alexandra! Ça va?!” He immediately put me at my ease. What a wonderful man.
I gradually amassed enough demo tapes and notation and also worked off commercial records and tapes (no CDs then!). It was extremely hard to pick out the melodeon from the other instruments but my ear improved over time.
What was it like doing the work of producing the book?
To be honest I hated the work but the idea of producing this book excited me, so after a few years the book was near completion after a number of changes in direction and ideas. Then I went and had a baby didn’t I? It was the worst timing. I struggled to finish the last little details with a baby crying and generally making the demands babies do and I was exhausted, but determined. At last the book was done and a major part of my life over several years had come to a satisfying end. I was so excited.
Only one print run was done and the books were then passed to another publisher after a few months. Only a few books were sold as they were originally very expensive, at £25, but then they were lost at a French festival when the van they were in got stolen. The publisher didn’t want to pay for another print run and I would never have been able to afford to pay for one myself. That was the end. It was excruciating as I’d spent so much time and effort on the book.
But now it’s back.
Then came the digital age. So, nearly 13 years after the last book was sold, I took up the challenge and wow, what a success, at long, long last! I could not have done this without What a brilliant and friendly forum that is.
I thank you all for the success you’ve made this book.

Tribute: Diatonic Liaisons

Around thirteen years ago I was at the Button Box and saw a tune book, Diatonic Liaisons, by Alexandra Browne. An amazing piece of work, it compiled original tunes by Frédéric Paris, Dave Roberts, Bruno le Tron, Alain Pennec, Alan Lamb, Andy Cutting, Trevor Upham, and Marc Perrone. With eight tunes by each of these worthies, along with extensive biographical notes, this was an amazing, unprecedented collection. On top of that, it was simply beautiful, with the music hand rendered, incorporating unique symbols to capture the particularities of button accordion practice. On any other day, I would have picked up the thing for twice the asking price.

But on that day I was purchasing an instrument and had no excess supply of the ready to get the book.  “Next time,” I said, and then never saw it again.

Until a few months ago. Who should show up on but Alexandra Browne herself, and she doesn’t know, but is there any interest in this book … and there was a lot of interest. A print run was done, and copies were made available (also by PDF), all for a reasonable price. So, I’m recommending the thing unequivocally. If you’re interested in obtaining a copy, contact Ms. Browne at

Mazurka: Bec à Bec

In my interview with Frédéric Paris, he referred to adapting the repertoire of various instruments to the diatonic accordion. This was back in the seventies when the “tradition” of French diato was being mapped out by the likes of Paris and Jean Blanchard, et al. What struck me was how apt the word “adapt” is to the process of taking a tune found on vielle or cornemuse and making it work on the diatonic box. About a year ago, I started paying attention to this mazurka, “Bec à bec,” on the La Chavanée recording, Rage de danse. Here it is:

Just listening back to it now, as I write, I am stunned at just how perfect a piece of music this is. It is heartbreakingly beautiful. Everything I love about French music is there.

But it’s not very accordéon-ish. How to make it work on the box? La Chavanée gives us two bagpipes playing single, entwined melody lines — of all folk musics, I think it’s fair to say that tradFrench is the lord of the counter-melody — and no chords, per se, though a harmony could be sketched out. That’s not what I did, though. Rather, I got my hands around the melody, and worked out the bass and chords according to my ear. Here’s what I came up with:

Not nearly as majestic as the pipes, but what is?

Click to enlarge

Meanwhile, in Alsace, the doyens of the biannual Pique-diatonique gathering had chosen “Bec à bec” as one of the three new tunes for the October 9 gathering. The sheet music they posted, which included tab and dots, showed that they had “adapted” the tune differently than I did. For example, in the third bar I play an F chord over the “D”-based melody phrase. In the Pique-diatonique transcription they use a “G”-chord. Again, in the third bar of the b-section, the Pique-diatonique transcription uses a G chord, which, with the “F”-natural suggests a G7. I chose an F chord, which, with the “D”s hints at a D minor. Either works. But they’re different.

I’m not making any arguments here, other than this: there are any number of choices you make when you adapt a tune to the box. Another example, I notice that in the fourth bar of the Pique-diatonique transcription, they play across rows, rather than down the one row, as I do. I think my playing sounds a little galumphy at that point. Time to try it their way.

Bourrée: On d’onderon garda

I was listening to one of the first bourrées I’d ever learned, “On d’onderon garda,” and realized I had this tune in a number of versions. I listened to them all and found it a fascinating exercise. Thus, here are a number of different versions of this ear-worm of a tune. Check out the sheet music, as well. (There’s a difference in how some play the second bar of the A section. Some play it as here, one-and-two-three, others play it as one-two-and-three. Choose wisely.)

I first heard this tune about twelve years ago, played by Sylvain Piron on a Castagnari Giordy, a tiny accordion with a concertina-ish sound.

Sylvain and I, about to perform On d’onderon garda
at the Trenton Grange

I quickly downloaded the sheet music, which Sylvain had posted on his site. Later, when he visited the United States in 2002, we performed the tune together at the Grange hall in Trenton, Maine. Here is his recording on the giordy:

Sylvain Piron

Sylvain’s light touch on the tune did not prepare me for the version I heard on a compilation called, Accordeons en Aubrec. This is pretty hard-core Auvergnat playing on the five-row, chromatic button accordion — the squeeze-instrument of choice for tradfrench music for most of the twentieth century. Note the spelling change of the name.

Christian Bessiere, “On Onarem Gardar”

Here’s a version by the group, Jimber’tee, from one of AMTA’s early cassette tape series. This is a very wild version which I love. The tune doesn’t actually start til about 2/3rds in.


In another vein, a fellow over on pointed me to this recording of the open session at the George Inn, featuring members of the George Inn Giant Ceili Band (GIG CB) leading the festivities. Members include Alan Day (concertina), Mel Stevens (pipes), and Chris Shaw (melodeon). I invite you to bask in the experience of living in all that sound, the pipes right there, multiple hurdy gurdies, fiddles, conversation, glasses clinking, and you drinking. The melodeon player has place his ear against the box in order to hear it! Marvelous.

Alan Day, of the GIG CB, has posted a solo concertina version of the tune on his YouTube. It’s a delightful rendition that shows that, while it may sound “concertina-ish,” the Castagnari Giordy is not a concertina. Alan does some very interesting things with the rhythm and chords. Take a listen.

Finally, here’s a reposting of my recording of this, made in 2008 (!!!) on my Salterelle Pastourelle.

Pour les Absents

Debauchery in Dahlenheim

It’s coming. As I reported in a previous post, on May 29, a group of Alsatian diatonistes and their closest friends will be gathering in Dahlenheim for their accordion, picnic basket bacchanal, the Pique-diatonique. As usual, I am unable to attend, and I was thinking to myself, “Self, you could surely use such an event.” At the very least, I would like to express my solidarity with the pique-diatonistes. In that previous post, I suggested a sort of international holiday, Pique-diatonique Day. The UN declined to act on my request.  C’est la vie.

Still, to all who cannot attend, on May 29, I invite you to go have a picnic and play accordion tunes from the pique-diatonique tune book. (Note that the three tunes adopted for this year are here.)

Further, if you so wish, I invite you to record yourself in audio or video, and post it to YouTube or whatever service you prefer. I will gather these recordings into an Anthologie Vidéo de l’Absent, and feature them here.

Update: Bal Folk Tune Book

Dave Mallinson

After posting my review of the Bal Folk tune book, I managed to talk to both Dave Mallinson — publisher of the tunebook — and Mel Stevens — compiler of the iconic pink/blue Massif Central tune books that Mallinson’s book is based on. I had some questions. First, how did Mallinson go about editing the two books into one? How did he make the decisions he made? Second, who are Trevor Upham and Chris Shaw, who wrote a bunch of tunes in the new book? And, third, why isn’t Mel Stevens even mentioned on the new edition? He did, after all, transcribe and compile the master set.
Mallinson explained in an e-mail:

I published Bal Folk because I bought the Dragonfly catalogue several years ago. The selection was made by eliminating any tunes that had possible copyright problems. Trevor Upham and Chris Shaw are friends of Mel Stevens who write excellent tunes in the style of the rest of the book. All the editing, re-naming and additions were at the request of Mel Stevens. Bal Folk has been thoroughly checked by Mel and extensive corrections have been made.

Mel Stevens wrote:

When I first became interested in French music there was very little in print. During the period 1979-1984 I picked up a lot of music in France. This came from recordings I made of folklore displays, folkdance workshops, dances, sessions, and festivals, anywhere where trad music was being played. This was initially to develop my own repertoire. These are the tunes that ended up in the Massif Central tune books.

I have, however, been unhappy about these books and their inaccuracy for several years, and when Dave Mallinson took over Dragonfly, I told him that I did not want them reprinted. Bal Folk was a compromise whereby Dave took over ownership and kept a French tune collection for his catalogue.

Stevens requested that his name not be on the book.

Additionally, Trevor Upham and Chris Shaw are not merely friends of Mel Stevens, but bandmates in the group GIGCB (The George Inn Giant Ceili Band). So, cheers to Stevens for compiling the original thing, and to Mallinson, Upham, and Shaw for keeping this vital resource alive!